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The Canterbury Tales

Notes to Life of Geoffrey Chaucer
1. "Edmund Spenser, a native of London, was born with a Muse of such power, that he was
superior to all English poets of preceding ages, not excepting his fellow-citizen Chaucer."
2. See introduction to "The Legend of Good Women".
3. Called in the editions before 1597 "The Dream of Chaucer". The poem, which is not included
in the present edition, does indeed, like many of Chaucer's smaller works, tell the story of a
dream, in which a knight, representing John of Gaunt, is found by the poet mourning the loss of
his lady; but the true "Dream of Chaucer," in which he celebrates the marriage of his patron,
was published for the first time by Speght in 1597. John of Gaunt, in the end of 1371, married
his second wife, Constance, daughter to Pedro the Cruel of Spain; so that "The Book of the
Duchess" must have been written between 1369 and 1371.
4. Where he bids his "little book"
"Subject be unto all poesy,
And kiss the steps, where as thou seest space,
Of Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan, Stace."
5. See note 1 to The Tale in The Clerk's Tale.
6. See note 1 to The Man of Law's Tale.
7. "Written," says Mr Wright, "in the sixteenth year of the reign of Richard II. (1392-1393);" a
powerful confirmation of the opinion that this poem was really produced in Chaucer's mature
age. See the introductory notes to it and to the Legend of Good Women.
8. The old biographers of Chaucer, founding on what they took to be autobiographic allusions in
"The Testament of Love," assign to him between 1354 and 1389 a very different history from
that here given on the strength of authentic records explored and quoted by Sir H. Nicolas.
Chaucer is made to espouse the cause of John of Northampton, the Wycliffite Lord Mayor of
London, whose re-election in 1384 was so vehemently opposed by the clergy, and who was
imprisoned in the sequel of the grave disorders that arose. The poet, it is said, fled to the
Continent, taking with him a large sum of money, which he spent in supporting companions in
exile; then, returning by stealth to England in quest of funds, he was detected and sent to the
Tower, where he languished for three years, being released only on the humiliating condition of
informing against his associates in the plot. The public records show, however, that, all the time
of his alleged exile and captivity, he was quietly living in London, regularly drawing his pensions
in person, sitting in Parliament, and discharging his duties in the Customs until his dismissal in
1386. It need not be said, further, that although Chaucer freely handled the errors, the
ignorance, and vices of the clergy, he did so rather as a man of sense and of conscience, than
as a Wycliffite -- and there is no evidence that he espoused the opinions of the zealous
Reformer, far less played the part of an extreme and self- regardless partisan of his old friend
and college-companion.
 
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